Read The Kiln Online

Authors: William McIlvanney

The Kiln

BOOK: The Kiln


William McIlvanney’s first novel,
Remedy is None
, won the
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and with
he won the
Whitbread Award for Fiction.
The Papers of Tony Veitch
both gained Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association.
Strange Loyalties
, the third in the Detective Laidlaw trilogy, won
Glasgow Herald
’s People’s Prize.

Also by William McIlvanney


Remedy is None

Gift from Nessus

The Big Man

Walking Wounded

The Kiln


The Detective Laidlaw trilogy


The Papers of Tony Veitch

Strange Loyalties


The Longships in Harbour

In Through the Head

These Words: Weddings and After

Non Fiction

Shades of Grey – Glasgow 1956–1987, with Oscar Marzaroli

Surviving the Shipwreck

The Kiln


“Come On A My House,” written by Ross Bagdasarian and William Saroyan, reproduced by kind permission of MCA Music Ltd.
“Rock Around the Clock,” written by Max Freedman and Jimmy DeKnight, © 1954 Edward Kassner Music Co. Ltd. for the World. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

Copyright © 1996 William Mcllvanney

This digital edition published in Great Britain in 2014
by Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

First published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton

The moral right of the author has been asserted

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 9781782111917

For Joan and for my nephews and
nieces and their families –
theirs is the true story.

At the moment of writing the author is Active. Only the story is real.'

– Tom Docherty

‘You must find the way to let the heat of experience temper your naivety without reducing your idealism to ashes.’

– Jack Laidlaw

, he would think, who I thought I was has dried up like a well and I have to find again the source of who I am.

back home from Grenoble through Heathrow Airport, the uncertainty of it, how it is better to travel in doubt than to arrive, and how every stage of his returning reminded him forcefully that the man who was going back to Graithnock was still the boy who had left it, and that the summer of the kiln continued to happen in him.

He would be puzzled by repeating moments of that summer, their small persistence, amazed at the disparity between the triviality of the incident and the longevity of its endurance, like coming upon an octogenarian mayfly. They came, it seemed, of their own volition. No doubt they were occasioned by some sequence of thoughts which he could not retrace. But they were for him not logically explicable. Whatever purpose he had been imagining himself to have in wandering whatever corridors of the mind, it seemed the purpose had been ambushed. It was as if a door, in some corridor down which he was passing, were suddenly to open for no reason, spontaneously.

And there in a long-forgotten place, lit by a long-dead sun or by a light-bulb which had burned out years ago, were places and people he had known. The places were as they had been, unchanged. The long-abandoned furniture was neatly in place. The people were still talking animatedly about problems long
since resolved, still laughing, still saying words that he could hear, still brewing tea that had been drunk. They could be young who were now old. They could be alive who were now dead.

Auntie Bella says.

She stops at the living-room door with her leather message-bag. She's so notorious for taking slow departures that nobody ever sees her to the front door any more. It can get too cold. She seems to remember everything she had originally meant to say just as she is leaving.

‘Ye can watch the seasons change just listenin’ to Bella sayin' cheerio,' Tam's father has said.

‘Ah met Mary Boland at the shops there. She was tellin’ me whidyimacallum's been in a car crash.'

Eventually, she finds the surname she is looking for. It belongs to a well-known and very right-wing politician. His name has for a long time been the equivalent of a swear-word in the house, about as pleasant to contemplate as Sir Anthony Eden's election win for the Tories in May.

‘Oh, that's right,’ Tam's mother says. ‘It was in the six o'clock news. Wasn't it. Conn?’

‘Well?’ Auntie Bella is waiting. ‘What's the word?’

‘Said his condition was very satisfactory,’ Tam's father says. So Ah'm assumin' he's dead.'

, he decided, remembering both the journey from Grenoble and the earlier summer it had reactivated, as if they were the latitude and longitude of a confused life by which he might fix where he was, beyond the physical. The physical was simple enough. It was a rented flat in Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith. The way he felt, it might as well be the Water of Lethe. For he was aging and so many of the things he dreamt would happen hadn't happened and wouldn't happen
for him now. And what
happened, he still couldn't be sure. By the waters of Leith, we sat down and wept when we remembered Graithnock. Oy vey, with a Scottish accent.

‘I have seen the future and it works’ (Lincoln Steffens). He had seen the present and it didn't work. He looked round the apartment where he was holing up, surrounded by someone else's furniture. This was what he had achieved? He was a recluse among half a million people. He owned nothing but some books - no house, no car, no prospects. He hadn't just burned his boats, he had burnt the blueprint for them. He had stopped visiting old friends, owing to his present tendency to bleed verbally all over their carpets. He was trying to stop inhaling whisky as if it was an oxygen substitute. His finances were a shambles swiftly degenerating into a chaos. This was what he had earned? Lodgings in a stranger's place? Emotional destitution? The melodramatic possibility of suicide nipped in and out of the flat like a dubious friend wondering if he could help that day. Otherwise, things were fine.

He was trying to do that sum again, the addition and subtraction of experience - what did it come to? How did you quantify the dreams that died, the gifts you gave and were given, the promises you thought the world made and then broke, the remembered moments that still shone like pure gold, the wonderful faces, the death of the best, the laughter that turned banality into carnival, the purifying angers, the great dead minds that whispered their secrets to you in the early hours of many mornings, the bitter sweetness of family, the incorrigible contradictoriness of living? By remembering?

and says, ‘Mahatma Gandhi.’

He is staring into a dimness delicately brushed with half-light from the greying embers of the fire. The furniture of the living-room has a sheen of gentle aging. The sideboard could be an antique. The biscuit barrel sitting on top of it, where his mother keeps the rent money, might as well be an Etruscan vase. The clock above the fireplace is keeping a time that
doesn't seem the present. He is awake in a room he cannot recognise.

He is frozen at the sound of his own voice. Where did that come from? He has been experiencing that familiar sensation of standing at the edge of a clifftop on which the ground is crumbling under his feet and he is falling when the speaking aloud of that name jerks him clear and leaves him sitting upright in his bed.

He listens. He is glad no one has heard. It's a good thing he sleeps in the fold-down bed in the living-room. He can keep his madness private. His family are sanely asleep upstairs.

Mahatma Gandhi? Where did he come from? Almost immediately Tam knows that the small, skinny man in the Indian frock has wandered out of his own most potent obsession: his wondering about ways of how people get it.

‘It' - in the darkness of his head he lets that cryptic cipher open out into some of the variations he has heard it given and repeats them to himself like a satanic litany: your hole, sex, rumpy-pumpy, intercourse, making love, houghmagandie, ‘you know’ (with a smile), a ride, a bit of the other, a shag, hi-diddle-diddle, copulation, sexual union, ‘Christ, it was incredible!’

Why were there so many names for it? Were there that many different ways to do it? And if it was so various, springing up everywhere like a genus of weed with a thousand species, how come you'd managed to avoid it so far? You had heard it called about a hundred things. (You could almost bet that any euphemism you heard and didn't understand, that's what it meant.) But you'd never had it. You had read it, thought it, heard it, certainly mimed it, and once been sure you smelled it, but you had never felt it. To judge from what you'd been told, it was running amuck like the bubonic plague and you were boringly, agonisingly immune.

He can't believe it. It winks and nods at him from everywhere but won't come out to play. What is wrong with him?

He remembers having to translate
The Anabasis
in the Greek class. And that's another thing: Latin and Greek at school - what does that have to do with living in Graithnock? He can't remember the woman's name now but it was someone who came to see Cyrus of Persia about something. At least he thinks it was Cyrus. It could have been Xerxes. But he had to translate the passage.

He had looked up the words. When the Greek appeared before him, he said, ‘It is said he lay with her.’ He got it right. He was good at translation. He could translate one word into another word. But what the hell did it mean? It is said he lay with her? All right, he was in third year at that time but he was fifteen going on five. He
with her?

All Dusty Thomas said was, ‘Well done, Docherty.’ That was well done? He had translated it from one foreign language into another foreign language. He felt like screaming, ‘But what did the bastard
? (He likes swearing in his head.)

He hasn't just read about it in Greek. Being so bookish, he has tracked it down in a lot of places. He has even memorised some of the references. ‘His need pistoned into her.’ ‘She screamed in agonised ecstasy.’ He sometimes says the words to himself like a wine-taster with no taste-buds. He follows the spoor of those references round and round without finding any corresponding reality in his own experience until he begins to think that he is tracking a beast which, perhaps only in his private world, has become extinct.

But he continues to brood on ways of how to get it. No medieval alchemist was ever more obsessive in his search for the philosopher's stone. Out there is gold - pure, undiluted sex. He has to discover the formula that will transmute the base metal of cafes and the dancing and brassieres that seem welded to the body and skirts that defy levitation into the transcendental shining of doing it.

He studies much. He will read or hear things that will stop him dead and leave him staring into space, wondering if he has come upon the key that will unlock the golden hoard. Sometimes the revelation will only come in retrospect. He will be lying, as now, in his fold-down bed in the living-room, the house quiet as a mouse's breathing, and the turmoil of his mind will become very still, transfixed. That thing he has read or heard. Of course. Is that what he has been looking for? Has he reached the culmination of his quest?

Yes. That is the news the Mahatma brings him. For he read recently of Gandhi's determined search for physical purity. Apparently he thought that intercourse with women (and, therefore, presumably with men) should be avoided because
they took away a man's vital juices. (To judge by that criterion. Tam must be so full of vital juices they are coming out his ears. Purity? He sought physical purity, did he? No problem. Here was the answer in three words: be Tam Docherty.)

The person who was writing about Gandhi was full of praise for the Mahatma's constant need to prove how pure he was, how immune to temptation. In order to do this, he would take different young women to bed with him. They must sleep together without having sex. That way, he could prove his purity was still intact. The writer was in awe of such holy self-denial.

Sitting up in bed. Tam realises that his own reaction is completely different. How could he have read so carelessly as to let the writer's attitude simply become his own, without examining it? He is always doing that. He reads something in a book or a newspaper, or he listens to someone, and it may be two days later when he thinks, ‘What a load of shite that was! Why did I accept it?’ He feels that now.

The thought that comes to him as he sits upright on his lonely bed, bathed in illumination, is a simple one, stunningly clear. ‘Mahatma, you fly, old bastard.’ For it was perfect, wasn't it? You had it either way. You couldn't lose. If you didn't manage to perform, your purity had triumphed. If you had sex, it was a sad lapse from your desired standards and you must try again. And again and again and again. Ya beauty. No pressure. The ultimate, self-indulgent con. The man was a genius.

Tam is staring ahead, hardly daring to breathe in case he displaces the brilliant idea that is forming in his mind. He is already calling it The Gandhi Technique. It is a marvellous way to get a woman into bed. He finds himself going through a leisurely selection process. This sustains his exhilarated optimism for fully half an hour until realism intrudes like a burglar into the privacy of his meditation.

To make the technique work, you first of all have to become more or less world-famous. It is dependent on the veneration of others, their preparedness to believe whatever you say is your motivation. That seems to let him out.

When he explains to them the lofty reasons why they must come to bed with him, his eyes brimming with religious sincerity, he can't imagine any of the girls at the dancing saying, ‘I hear and
obey, o holy one.’ No. Such divine lack of scepticism doesn't go along with a woollen sweater to accentuate your tits, a tight cotton skirt and cigarettes and matches held in one hand while you dance forehead to forehead with a plumber's mate. And there must be few people who have ever jitterbugged themselves on to a plane of metaphysical understanding. Perhaps when he is famous and revered throughout the world, the technique may provide him with a pleasant way to pass his seventies. But at the age of seventeen it's about as useful to him as a French letter to a eunuch.

The vision disperses. The embers have died in the fire. The room has lost its magic, gone grey again. This isn't the enchanted land where sex can happen. It's 14 Dawson Street, Graithnock. The drab furniture mocks him with the unchangeable ordinariness of his life. It isn't going to happen, it tells him. Whatever you thought would happen, it won't.

He huddles down in his bed, feeling suddenly cold. What's the betting even his dreams are in black and white?

of the summer of the kiln, before the weather warmed. Otherwise, why would the fire have been on? He sat in his flat near the Water of Leith and he could hear a ringing phone. But he knew that it wasn't ringing here. It was ringing in Grenoble, in the darkness. Perhaps he shouldn't have answered it. But what else could you do? And that call he received led to others he must make.

,’ the woman's voice had said.

No, he wouldn't be
-ing. Fat chance. He was joined to whatever dull information she would give him about flights as compulsively and inexorably as he was joined to the boy thinking of Mahatma Gandhi on his bed.

They might cut the umbilicus but you carried your end of it
in you everywhere, even here in Grenoble. The first place you left followed somewhere behind you always, like a lover who couldn't bear to part, so that you could spend the rest of your life going back to take repeated farewells of it and thinking, ‘Why the hell can't you leave me alone? It's over now. That's not who I am any more.’

But it was. It always was. You can't disown your past without becoming no one. He felt that now, holding the phone. He would go back in body now as he had gone back so often in his head. Perhaps he had never really left.

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